I found a quiet little Costa at the back of this WH Smiths, ordered an Earl Grey and a packet of white wafer biscuits and sat down on one of the comfy seats next to the wall at the back, by the fire exit, to watch people. As is my compulsion, in between people-scoping, I was writing lists of jobs to be done, in a spiral notebook.
The tea was nice.
But then I saw this guy sitting by a mini table over near the counter. He was plugged into his netbook, headphones on, typing furiously and my first thought was, aah, porn. Then I thought, chatroom, maybe? Or Grand Theft Auto?
Then I thought it could be a million things. He might be running a huge company from the comfort of a Costa easy chair. He might be writing a thesis on the leisure habits of the English cafe-classes, or settling his accounts with the taxman; he might be watching a pirated copy of Black Dynamite (but I said no to that particular idea, ‘cos he wasn’t laughing out loud).
And he was listening, not talking, so I thought, yup, gamer.
I looked him over, for more clues, and while he didn’t have a big fat head or anything, he did get wider, the further down his body you looked. Sort of like this: average head, pudgy neck, flaccid chest, hefty waist, bovine thighs and legs. Huge feet.
He was triangle-shaped.
World of Warcraft, I thought. Definitely.
On principle, I dislike gaming. It’s ersatz. I’m pretty suspicious of all of this virtual nonsense. I think, do it properly. Say, if you want to do kung fu, don’t play some stupid fight game; take classes, punish yourself physically, get tough, and maybe get a job as a nightclub doorman – you’ll get loads of violence and it’ll be real. Or if, say, you want to fly a biplane; go join a club, get your pilot’s licence – don’t sit in your bedroom with a plastic joystick and a screen. Or if you want sex, then find a partner, someone you like, who’s nice and who likes you too, and make love with them. But please don’t just join some alt.binaries fucking newsgroup, where you swap images of fifteen year old Russian schoolgirls, or fat grandmothers or whatever it is that takes your fancy. ‘Cos here’s the really interesting bit – none of that’s real. And you’re sitting there, and you are real.
Then again, I thought, ten minutes later, as I walked back through the bestsellers shelves of Smiths, where does that leave blogging, or websites full of short stories, like mine?
I scanned the rows of shelves, filled with ghost-written books credited to female celebrities, and ghost-written adventure stories credited to former action-heroes; then there were the formulaic super-soft porn novels aimed of ladies of advancing years, and shelves full of this year’s DVD by some right-on comedian.
And I thought, there’s absolutely nothing here for me.
But it’s not just Smiths; about a year ago I went into a branch of Waterstones and asked where the short-story section was and the guy pointed it out to me.
‘Over there. But we haven’t got many,’ he admitted.
He was right.
There was one book. And I bought it.
It struck me that if you want to read new fiction, you almost have to go online. And before you accuse me of trying to advertise on behalf of the James Ross society, or some secretive Knight’s Templar’s guild of short story writers, think about it. Where else you going to go? The library?
They don’t sell Earl Grey. Or white wafer biscuits.